House Passes GOP California Drought Bill, But Senate Approval Unlikely

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

Legislation addressing California’s drought reached an inconclusive high-water mark Tuesday, passing the House on a largely party line vote before trickling off to a bleak fate in the Senate.

While the Republican-controlled House approved the California water bill by a 230-182 margin, California’s two Democratic senators oppose it with varying degrees of severity.

The Senate resistance and the bill authors’ inability to reconcile competing state interests effectively renders the stand-alone California Emergency Drought Relief Act a Capitol Hill orphan. Last-minute efforts to add similar language onto a separate spending bill continue. …

 

Voters affirm CA fracking

 

 

Monterey ShaleAfter a lot of spending and acrimony, little has changed from California’s high-profile ballot measures to ban hydraulic fracturing, which injects a mix of substances into shale rock to free up oil for extraction.

In two counties with little to no oil drilling — San Benito and Mendocino — anti-fracking measures prevailed. San Benito’s Measure J passed with almost 57 percent of the vote. Mendocino’s Measure S prevailed with 67 percent voting in favor.

In Santa Barbara county, however, where drilling has been well established for over a century, fracking was protected. There, Measure P was defeated by 63 to 37 percent.

Santa Barbara, host to the oil industry since the late 19th century, had the most at stake. In 1969, the county suffered a dramatic offshore oil well disaster that triggered environmental legislation and galvanized the environmentalist movement. Although oil production held on, the industry had to invest substantial sums to fend off the fracking ban.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Chevron (headquartered in San Ramon) ponied up $2.6 million to sink the three measures, with Aera Energy adding $2.1 million and Occidental Petroleum another $2 million.

Supporters of the ban raised only a fraction of that.

Political geography

Geography dictated the focus of the fracking debate. The three counties lie on and around the Monterey Shale formation, which winds and twists its way through much of California. The Chronicle reported that “the federal government this year slashed its estimate of the amount of oil that can be squeezed from the shale using current technology,” although “drillers continue probing the formation, saying it could one day yield an economic bonanza for the state.”

As David Quast, California director of the pro-fracking organization Energy in Depth, indicated to Platts, “The U.S. Geological Survey in 1995 estimated that the Bakken Shale in North Dakota contained just 151 million barrels of recoverable oil, only to significantly boost that projection in 2008 to 3-4 billion barrels, and then again doubling it last year.”

Yet, as Platts reported, the U.S. Energy Information Administration announced in May that the Monterey Shale formation was very unlikely to yield a bonanza. Its estimate of “technically recoverable resources” plunged by 96 percent, “from 13.7 billion barrels in a 2012 study to 600 million barrels in a study” released in June.

California at a crossroads

With the split decision by voters in Santa Barbara, San Benito and Mendocino, the legal landscape surrounding fracking has become even more fractured. In Sacramento, as The Huffington Post reported, the state Senate “narrowly voted against a statewide fracking moratorium earlier this year,” while “Santa Cruz County and the city of Los Angeles already have similar bans in place.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown rankled environmentalists last year by supporting legislation that “would allow fracking to continue while lawmakers implemented a specific set of regulations and experts studied its potentially hazardous effects.”

In a further twist, California’s weather has clashed with changing consumer tastes to add a layer of complexity to the fracking debate. Since fracking requires the use of substantial amounts of water, the Golden State’s current drought has intensified the trade-offs associated with its use.

But energy exploration and development have not turned out to be the only culprit in the competition for scarce resources. The burgeoning market for almond milk has pushed the market for California-grown, water-intensive almonds so high the nuts now generate $4 billion a year in revenue, according to the Guardian. Monterey County, where water is also scarce, grows 44 percent of the world’s lettuce.

Kern County, meanwhile, has faced direct competition between Californians’ energy needs and dietary tastes. California’s oil-producing regions have been struggling to make do with current water supplies.

While half of America’s carrot crop and 40 percent of its pistachio crop come from Kern, the Guardian observed, the county’s oil fields are the sixth largest in the United States.

Water vs. oil: It’s an old California battle that will continue.

This article was originally published on CalWatchdog.com

 

Are benefits of Prop. 1 being oversold?

 

 

2014-10-23-Prop1coverProposition 1 — a $7.1 billion state bond to pay for a variety of water projects — was billed as a huge improvement over bloated past proposed water bonds when it emerged from the Legislature this summer. Now Gov. Jerry Brown’s political warchest and Sean Parker of Facebook and Napster fame are funding an ad campaign that aggressively pitches the measure and the Prop 2 rainy-day fund as crucial for California’s future.

Last week, however, one of the relatively few think tanks that specializes in water issues came out with a 26-page analysis that in low-key fashion suggests Prop 1’s merits are being exaggerated. The Pacific Institute, based in Oakland, says it is neutral on the measure. But its concluding chapter strongly  suggests that the bond is likely to disappoint anyone who sees it as a game-changer for state water policy:

We note that nothing in this proposition will provide immediate relief from the current drought or offer short-term assistance to those suffering the consequences of current water challenges. If Proposition 1 passes, if the funds are designated for effective projects, and if those projects are well-designed and well-implemented, the long-term benefits could include a reduction in the risks of future droughts and floods as well as improvements in the health of California’s aquatic ecosystems. A key priority of the bond is to augment the state’s water supply and improve water supply reliability, with more than $4.2 billion in taxpayer funding dedicated to that priority.

As was the case with the 2010 bond, there is substantial funding in the 2014 bond for the public benefits portions of surface water or groundwater storage projects. The 2010 bond included $3.0 billion directly for water storage; the current language includes $2.7 billion. Because the total size of the 2014 bond is smaller than the 2010 bond, the proportion of total funding committed for storage increased from 30% to 36%. Beyond the eduction in the total allocation from $3 billion to $2.7 billion, the water storage language in the proposed 2014 bond is almost identical to the language in the original 2010 bond.

Far less of the bond funds are available for other water supply and demand management options, including recycled water, stormwater capture, and efficiency. Yet, these options can typically provide more water at lower cost than most storage projects. Funding for water conservation and efficiency is especially low, at only $100 million, or about 1% of the bond.

 A down payment on water future “at best”

The think tank also worries that once the bond money is in hand, allocation decisions may be poorly handled.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of Proposition 1 funds in addressing California’s overall water problems will depend on how the funds, if passed by the voters, are actually allocated and spent. If Proposition 1 passes, the Institute recommends that the California Water Commission develop a rigorous, independent, and transparent evaluation of the process governing the evaluation and quantification of the public benefits of proposed storage projects. It also recommends that decisions about the rest of the funds be made with a focus on meeting public and ecosystem needs for safe and reliable water, improvements in efficient use, and reductions in the risks of future droughts and floods.

If good projects are identified and supported, these funds can help move the state forward in the broader effort of designing, building, and managing a 21st century water system. But voters should not expect immediate relief from Proposition 1 for the impacts of the current drought; nor should they expect these funds to be the last investment that is needed for better institutions, smarter planning, and more effective water management strategies. It can be, at best, a down payment on our water future.

The obvious solution that may someday be forced on us

ws_infographics_outdoorI’ve always thought that California’s water problems are seen through a distorted lens — one which doesn’t acknowledge that if water use is prioritized, genuine nightmares harming our quality of life are easily avoided.

The U.S. EPA says one-third of residential water use goes to maintain lawns. That’s nearly 9 billion gallons a day. And much of that is wasted.

If we ever had a water shortage so severe that it threatened our economy, stopping the use of water for what might be called cosmetic purposes would be an obvious step. Sorry, but using precious water so folks can have a green lawn should be the lowest water priority of all if the megadrought some expect for the Southwest comes to pass.

Brown lawns or dead lawns, in the grand scheme of things, are not genuine nightmares.

This article was originally published on CalWatchdog.com

Could desalination solve California’s water problem?

From the Sacramento Bee:

CARLSBAD — Along this patch of the Pacific Ocean, welders and pipefitters nearly outnumber the surfers and sunbathers. Within sight of the crashing waves, the laborers are assembling what some hope will make water scarcity a thing of the past.

They are building the Carlsbad Desalination Project, which will convert as much as 56 million gallons of seawater each day into drinking water for San Diego County residents. The project, with a price tag of $1 billion, is emerging from the sand like an industrial miracle. In California’s highly regulated coastal zone, it took nearly 15 years to move from concept to construction, surviving 14 legal challenges along the way.

The desalination plant is being built by Poseidon Water, a private company, and will be paid for in large part by rate increases on San Diego County water customers. On the surface, the plant resembles any other major construction project: Construction cranes scrape the sky as concrete foundations are poured; the giant new blocky building could be any warehouse or parts factory.

Inside, the truth of the project is revealed. …

 

Prop. 1 Roots Go Back to Water Bonds that Built California

You might say that Proposition 1, the water bond, carries the DNA of bonds that promoted a growing and prosperous California. Water bonds helped build the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the early 1900s to make possible the growth of one of the world’s great cities. Another bond helped build the State Water Project half-a-century later, which, among other things, helped spur the state’s agricultural abundance. With the state facing a drought of staggering proportions, Proposition 1 would continue California’s long history of providing and caring for precious water resources.

The seven-plus billion dollar bond contains money for protecting watersheds, cleaning contaminated groundwater, and water recycling among other projects. But unlike water bonds passed in the last decade, the heritage that the Prop 1 bond shares with the bonds that helped build California is the $2.7 billion set aside for water storage projects, dams and reservoirs, almost 40-percent of the total bond.

As Governor Pat Brown’s biographer, Ethan Rarick, points out his book, California Rising, the Life and Times of Pat Brown, the physical aspects of the Central Valley and Southern California are good for neither plants nor people. Rarick dedicates a chapter of the book to the history of the State Water Project and the campaign for the bond that narrowly passed. Pat Brown set out to, in his own words, “correct an accident of people and geography.”

Pat Brown’s State Water Project stored water behind dams and moved the water to where it was needed. The storage aspect of Proposition1 is essential for building up the water supply as the drought deepens.

The dams that stored the water to help create the California we know today were considered so important that President John F. Kennedy came out to California to help dedicate not one but two dams.

President Kennedy dedicated the San Luis Dam that created the San Luis Reservoir in August of 1962. He was back a year later to dedicate the Whiskeytown Dam six miles west of Redding before a crowd of 10,000 people. Fox and Hounds contributor Joe Mathews wrote a history of Kennedy’s visit to the Whiskeytown Dam on the Zocalo Public Square website last year, which you can read here.

Kennedy talked about conservation during his Whiskeytown Reservoir speech. But he also said the dam would allow water to be used to “irrigate crops on the fertile plains of the Sacramento Valley and supply water also for municipal and industrial use to the cities to the south.”

In environmentally conscience California, dam building has been controversial. It was in the 1960s and opposition has certainly grown over time. Interestingly, the State Water Project was built with revenue from both the bond passed by the voters and from state money earned from offshore oil wells. Can you imagine such a proposal being pushed today? Certainly, it would meet loud opposition.

Still, voters and politicians recognize the need to have a safe and adequate water supply. Pat Brown’s son, Governor Jerry Brown, recognized the need and included storage in the water measure he negotiated.

That day in Whiskeytown, President Kennedy, speaking of the dams and reservoirs, acknowledged “the wise decisions that were made by those who came before, and the wise decisions that you are making now.” We will see if the voters of today continue to make wise decisions about water.

This piece was originally published on Fox and Hounds Daily.

Desalination vital to CA’s future water supply

As the California drought worsens by the week, we seem to overlook how long we’ve known this was coming — and how much time we’ve wasted failing to prepare.  We have had multiple warnings that the situation will escalate, including projections by experts at UC Davis that next year will be another drought year.  Yet, Sacramento continues to look at short-term solutions, including rationing, purchasing costly out-of-state water and levying possible penalties for overuse.  Governor Jerry Brown is placing Proposition 1 on the ballot in November to secure $7.5 billion in emergency funds, after already passing relief packages earlier this year.  

It’s stupefying how long the water playbook in California has relied upon the same potboiler: Ignore the problem until it’s too late to do anything but deploy costly emergency measures that have no long-term impact on our state water problems.

We need to take the idea of investment into longer-term solutions seriously, and commit to a tried-and-true, globally-used technology that could drastically change our state’s water issues: Desalination.  

A process that has gained popularity in the past decade, desalination takes ocean or partially-salinated water and uses a filtration system to remove salt via a process called osmosis, resulting in drinkable, fresh water.  Thousands of desalination plants have cropped up around the world since the early 2000s, in arid climates like the Middle East.  These plants have provided sustained, consistent sources of water to places that could not survive otherwise — a direction in which California is likely to be headed.

California has long considered desalination. In 2002, a state-funded exploratory group spent $50 million, determining that desalination is an environmentally safe, as well as effective, source of clean water that should be included in our state’s long-term water resources planning.   There are nearly a dozen existing or proposed plants up and down the coast, including a major project in Carlsbad that will offer 50 million gallons of water each day, enough for roughly 3 million people.  When it is completed in 2015, it will have a significant impact on an area that has been for decades dependent on other regions for its water supply.  

Yet, the Carlsbad plant almost did not happen, thanks to regulatory reviews that lasted over six years, and over a dozen lawsuits by environmental groups designed to prevent the plant from being built — all of which were successfully won by the plant’s developers.  The immediate benefits of the Carlsbad plant to the San Diego area will be obvious, from lower spending on outside water next year, to less pressure on agriculture and business as water costs, and availability, are more consistent. If residents of San Diego look back at the years of delays, and the high costs of water shortage, they have to wonder if the protestations were worth the losses.

The study by UC Davis projects that this year the California drought will cost at least $2.2 billion in economic losses (not to mention the high cost of buying and importing water).  There is no reason not to expect the same or greater losses next year, or in 2016, if the drought continues.  How much revenue will the state of California lose before those who argue against the high cost of desal technology admit it is worth it to prevent future losses?

Now that we can look at the costs of this year’s drought alone, and the price tag of the state’s emergency relief measures, the $1 billion price tag of the Carlsbad plant seems reasonable by comparison.  Many desal plants around the state come at a much lower cost.  Santa Barbara is in the process of improving a desal plant that was built, and then abandoned, several years ago, at a cost of roughly $20 million.  Monterey spent about $14 million on a similar project.  

These, and other smaller coastal projects, prove that communities can spend much less to ensure a secure water future.  So, why hasn’t the state considered helping fund the investment? The governor has now proposed or approved over $8 billion in emergency water spending in 2014.  Where would California be in two years if the state directed even a portion of that total toward developing proposed desalination plants?  Such an investment would guarantee fewer emergency funds will be needed in future years, as we would be better able to manage years with little rainfall.

Skeptics of desalination claim the high cost alone makes the technology a less-than-ideal option for the state.  Many argue that California should continue to rely on water recycling, a method currently used to treat wastewater, removing sewage and returning it to our water system. However, the use of desalination has proven to be tried-and-true around the globe, and the reliance on a diminishing supply of available drinking water through recycling has not prevented us from reaching this critical point.  Our lakes and rivers have dried up; our underground aquifers are heading toward the same fate.  Desalination is likely the only rational and economically sound solution for California.

Yuri Vanetik is a private investor and philanthropist.